RENTON – A running back at heart, Jesse Hoffman has made a smooth transition to the physically demanding position of cornerback.
And the rookie out of Eastern Washington University is in a fierce competition to earn a spot on the 53-man final roster or the practice squad on his home-state team, the Seattle Seahawks.
Hoffman impressed Seahawks’ brass enough during his college pro day in April that they signed him to their 90-man roster as an undrafted free agent.
The 6-foot, 200-pounder showed the quick feet, long arms and rangy athletic ability Seattle coach Pete Carroll covets at cornerback.
Also helping him is the fact that he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds.
But Carroll doesn’t concern himself with whether a player is from a small school such as Eastern Washington or a football factory such as Alabama.
He just wants to see how they compete on the field.
“I don’t care how young they are, how old they are or where they came from,” Carroll said. “They’re out here battling. ... That’s all I watched in the past. It’s a good story, but out here, they got to battle.”
And while Hoffman has had his share of getting beat deep in practice by young, speedy receivers such as Golden Tate and Ricardo Lockette, the 23-year-old out of Shorecrest High in Seattle has more than held his own – including a couple timely plays in pass coverage in the Seattle’s exhibition win at San Diego.
Count veteran Seahawks corner Marcus Trufant – whose younger brother Isaiah also played at EWU – as a Hoffman supporter.
“He’s been working hard,” Trufant said. “It can be a little tough your first year. They’re throwing a lot of defenses at you.
“You’re in the league and it’s different than college. But he’s doing good, working hard and trying to get it all in. And he’s competing.”
Hoffman dreamed of playing the in the NFL, but on the other side of the ball. He was named a Class 3A first-team all-state running back during his senior season, rushing for a 3A-leading 2,222 yards and 37 total touchdowns.
Hoffman attended Eastern on scholarship as a running back, but a season-ending elbow injury during his sophomore opener against Montana-Western derailed those thoughts and forced a move to defense once his rehabilitation was complete.
“At first it was a little discouraging, and I kind of got down on myself,” Hoffman said about the position change. “But then I was like, ‘Whatever. I’m going to play my hand and get the best out of my opportunity and make the best of it.’
“And so I concentrated and took the coaching and did the best I could.”
Eagles’ secondary coach Torey Hunter initially had Hoffman playing safety, but after getting a firsthand look at Hoffman’s athletic ability and size, cornerback was determined to be a better fit.
Wise move. Hoffman eventually blossomed, finishing with three interceptions and a fourth-best 40 tackles for the Eagles last year. Hoffman also returned three kickoffs for scores, helping to lead the Eagles with the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) championship in 2010.
Hoffman is one of two players off that team fighting for an NFL job. The other, running back Taiwan Jones, was drafted by Oakland in the fourth round.
But Hoffman is attempting to parlay his college success into an NFL career as something of a rarity – a white cornerback playing a position dominated by African-Americans.
The last white cornerback of note in the NFL was Jason Sehorn, who finished a productive 10-year career in 2003.
Hoffman is aware of the unique position he’s in, and accepts the challenge.
“That’s like the only name I know of,” Hoffman said of Sehorn, when asked if he knew of any other white cornerbacks in the league. “My thoughts are, ‘Why not?’ Why not try and do the impossible, or shoot for something that’s not quite there.”
Seahawks secondary coach Kris Richard, who is half white and played five seasons in the NFL, doesn’t factor Hoffman’s ethnicity in his evaluation of whether he can be a successful cornerback in the league.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “If you can play, you can play. I’ll just use myself as an example. I’m a mixed breed. But if you turned on the film and watched me play, you didn’t know.
“So it doesn’t make a difference whatsoever. Yeah, it’s uncommon, but all that matters is if you can play.”
Trufant echoes his position coach’s sentiment.
“It’s all about ability, and that’s all the way around the field at every position,” Trufant said. “No matter what complexion you are, as long as you can go out there and ball, I think you’ll be all right.
“He’s good. He actually had some good plays in the preseason game last week. So he’s just trying to build on that and get better.”
Exhibition: Minnesota at Seattle, 7 p.m., Ch. 5, 710-AM A FEW MINUTES WITH
NEAL HOWEY, LINEBACKER
Small-school prospect hits THE big time
A 23-year-old linebacker out of Eastern Michigan, Howey is competing for a roster spot at outside linebacker for the Seahawks. He’s a native of Monroe, Mich., a small town with a population of 23,323 about 36 miles from the Eastern Michigan campus.
During his senior season for the Eagles, Howey led the team in tackles with 95 in 12 games – including seven tackles for loss.
“I’m happy to be out here,” he said. “It’s been a great experience. I’m just out here trying to make plays, and going one day at a time right now.”
This kid can move
Signed as an undrafted free agent, Howey’s athleticism got Seattle’s attention. At 6-foot-1, 230 pounds, he posted a 40-yard time of 4.53 seconds at his college pro day, benched 225 pounds 20 times and had a vertical jump of 35 inches.
“I always feel like I can run well and use my athleticism,” he said. “So I try to use that to my advantage.”
Not only is Howey fast, but he can also pop the pads, putting together some explosive hits during training camp that had his teammates saying, “I see you, Howey.”
“Definitely, you got to,” said Howey, when asked about the big hits.
Howey is playing outside linebacker behind veteran Leroy Hill and rookie Malcolm Smith. He says Hill, David Hawthorne and Aaron Curry have helped him learn all the defenses being thrown his way during the first two weeks of training camp.
“Heater (Hawthorne), and Hill and A.C. (Curry), they’re great,” he said. “They really try to help us out. They’ve been positive to me, trying to help me out as much as possible. And that really helps me in learning the defense and growing.”
Howey finished with two tackles in about a quarter of work in his first NFL action against San Diego. And he’s hopeful of building on that effort against Minnesota this week.
“It was amazing,” Howey said. “It was a great experience to step out there on the field and kind of feel a little electricity out there. I couldn’t be happier being out there.
“We’ve all gotten pretty tight. So we’re all hanging together and trying to do this thing.”
Eric D. Williams, staff writer